Monday, December 21, 2009
100 Years of Genius
Sololomon Volkov’s The Magical Chorus is a brilliant introduction to Russian high culture in the 20th century. It’s original, accessible, and relatively objective in terms of its treatment of revolutionary traditions in literature. The book covers Russian poetry, prose, theatre, dance, music, art, and film, with some forays into popular culture. It links Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, and Block to Brodsky.
Volkov’s own position as a Russian émigré, expert musicologist, and Voice of America cultural critic lends him special credibility on many of the topics he covers, especially the art and life of Russian and Soviet composers. The Magical Chorus stresses the close relationship between politics and culture throughout the twentieth century. Although some might fault Volkov for spending too much time on elite culture, and too little time on popular art forms, Volkov makes a very convincing case that elite art was incredibly influential on Soviet politics and Russian political culture. Strangely, but convincingly, Volkov’s study of high culture places Stalin squarely at the center of many if not most artistic trends of the twentieth century.
Volkov’s Stalin retains his place as one of the century’s most brutal dictators. However, Volkov’s Stalin is intelligent, well-read, sophisticated, and personally invested in the arts. Stalin’s impact on the humanities is manifested on many levels. Stalin took a direct interest in the leading authors of his day, patronized many leading figures in culture, selected Lenin and Stalin prize winners, met with literary leaders, and often intervened directly in their fates, for better or worse.
Stalin also maintained active correspondences with many authors—Gorky and Pasternak, most famously—and used culture as a political tool in terms of the propaganda war he was waging against the West during the 1930s. However, Volkov demonstrates that Stalin had a serious aesthetic philosophy (related to the general line of bringing high culture to the masses) and serious appreciation for some of the work itself, particularly opera, film, and literature. (In this context one should also recall that Stalin wrote good poetry as a young man).
In comparison with both Lenin, who preceded him, and Khrushchev, who succeeded him, Stalin was a connoisseur of the arts. Born into the intelligentsia, Lenin had almost no sense of wonder at even the most extreme forms of musical or literary talent. And Khrushchev, notwithstanding his early support for A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, let his belligerence, poor education, and insecurity get the best of him whenever he had the opportunity to engage with the arts.
To sum up, Volkov’s tour de horizon of modern Russian and Soviet culture leaves one breathless. What other country can boast so many first-rate authors and poets and muscicians? In fewer than 300 pages, Volkov discussed Tolstoy, Checkhov, Blok, Gumilev, Kandindsnky, Chagal, Diaghilev, Babel, Akhmatova, Berdyaev, Benois, Esenin, Ginzburg, Simonov, Horowitz, Mirsky, Ninjsnky, Stavinsky, Rachmaninoff, Shlovsky, Yevtushenko, Ehrenburg, Eistenstein, Mayakovsky, Nekrasov, Nureyev, Meyerhold,Sholokov,Bunin, Nabakov,Mandelstam, Bulgakov, Chukovsky, et cetera and so on. Despite the suffering and oppression, Russian genius asserted itself at every stage of modern history, but this genius was always produced as a result of a complex dialogue with the powerful and often terrifying Russian state.